Date of Performance/Collection: April 2007
In Jesus time, the dogwood grew
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong & firm it’s branches interwoven
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.
Seeing the distress at this use of their wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
“Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.
Slender and twisted, it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
As blood stains the petals marked in brown
The blossom’s center wears a thorny crown.
All who see it will remember me
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected this tree shall be
A reminder to all of my agony.”
This poem of unknown origin canonizes an old legend about this twisted, beautiful tree. My informant originally heard of the legend from her grandmother, and was unaware of its roots. As neither the Bible nor other historical records have anything to say about the wood used for Jesus’ cross, the idea that the dogwood was used cannot be verified. The legend exhibits a high degree of Christian symbolism, which would lead me to guess that it has foundations in the Catholic church, which has always shown great interest in symbolism, perhaps as far back as the Middle Ages.
My informant said, “According to the legend, the dogwood was one of the largest and strongest trees in the Middle East at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, and thus was the wood of choice for making crosses. Supposedly, the biggest and strongest was used for Jesus’ cross…. because of his pity for those who suffered on the cross, Jesus spoke to the dogwood tree and told it that it would be slender, bent, and twisted, so that it would never again be used as a form of execution.” She pointed out that one can look at a dogwood blossom and see that it has two short petals and two long petals in the semblance of a cross. The edges of the blossoms display a color pattern that resembles a nail wound, “tinged with brown (rust) and red (blood).”
My informant also recalled part of the legend not mentioned in the poem. Supposedly, three days after Jesus’ death, the dogwood trees began to wither and die. Several years later, woodcutters were amazed to have witnessed how forests of the trees they once used for lumber had been transformed into groves of twisted shrubs with fair blossoms.